May 2018
Dr. Katherina Pattit

With social media companies making the news and more people questioning their interaction with social networks, we talked with Dr. Katherina Pattit, associate professor of ethics and business law at the University of St. Thomas, about the changing landscape of social media and how higher education interacts with social networks.

Q: How should we expect social media companies to use our data?

A: I would like to think that social media companies use our data respectfully and in a way that will do us no harm and protects our privacy rights — ideally companies use our data to provide us with the services we need and to make these services better. They should also use them in ways that we can consent to and understand.

But I am afraid that reality is quite a bit different. For example, we might be asked for consent in a way that falls short of these ideals. Terms of service that users are typically asked to agree with before using the service are dozens of pages long and hard to understand even for legal experts. They often don’t clearly lay out what our data will be used for and even when they do most users might not understand what such use really means for them specifically.

Q: With Facebook’s recent changes, are we moving away from the corporate over use of personal data?

A: I do not think this is likely. Facebook’s business model is heavily reliant on using personal data to place ads for advertising — and it can only make money if the information it can collect and analyze from users lets them know as much as possible about who the users are, what they like, what they do — and then advertise to them in a very targeted way. The more we know about a user, the more money we can make — such is the calculus and the pressure for financial performance makes it difficult to move away from that model. Unless users experience some concrete personal harm from data breaches or over use of personal data, many will not change their use of the service and thus there is no real need or pressure to limit data use.

Q: How do social media companies support free speech and should there be limits?

A: It is useful to point out in this context that the right to free speech relates to freedom from restrictions in speech by government, not private actors or businesses (there are exceptions if these actors act on behalf of the government). Therefore, a private company can legitimately place restrictions on speech that happens on its platform or service — and they do. Facebook and Twitter have rules about what kind of speech they will not allow; however, enforcement of these rules is not always uniform, and exceptions get applied in various circumstances if there is a public interest in speech that might even run afoul of the platform’s rules.

In general, social media companies strive to make their platforms welcoming to as many users as possible and therefore it is in their interest to make sure that rules are neither too strict nor too lax so that users are neither feeling censored nor feel alienated or threatened by other users. It is a fine balance that social media companies do not always get right.

Q: Do you think social media fosters corrosive dialogue? And if so, do you think that has moved into real world conversations?

A: There are several features of interactions on social media that foster corrosive dialogue. These conditions lead to a cognitive mechanism called moral disengagement, which allows people to do things that they normally would consider objectionable. One usually does not see the person that might be harmed by some post or action. Furthermore, we cannot see what extent the harm takes. Just think what many horrible things people say about other drivers that might irritate them when they are in the privacy of their own cars. Most people would never say these things if the other drivers could hear them. In the context of social media there is a similar psychological distance because we cannot see the recipient of our message; we do not experience the anguish or distress they might feel when they get insulted for example.

Unfortunately, when people get in the habit of doing something in one sphere of life they also then tend to act like that in others. For example, increasingly some students use text “speak” in email communications with professors, even though it’s not appropriate. It is also hard to recognize gradual changes in our own and other’s behavior and so corrosive dialogue might creep into the real world without us noticing along the way.

Q: What are ethical obligations of higher education institutions on social media?

A: One of the core professional obligations of educators (and by extension the organization that supports them) is the formation of students. We might usually first think of imparting knowledge as the only responsibility, but formation goes beyond that. It includes modeling desirable behavior and helping students clarify and develop their values and hone their judgment. Students entrust themselves into the professional “care” of the educational institutions and in that moment the institution has significant responsibility. Social media can play an important role in fulfilling that responsibility. For example, it can facilitate reaching students where they are so formation can take place, institutions using it can model good judgment, students can get exposed to diverse values and compare and contrast their own values to those they see. But because institutions cannot control all aspects of social media use or exposure, there is also significant risk due to some of the conditions of moral disengagement that can occur that I mentioned earlier.

Q: What expectation should we have for students on social media?

A: Expectations are extension of modeling desirable behavior. When I say to my children “I expect you to clean up after yourself” I am indicating that neatness is desirable. Of course I then need to follow that up with my own consistent behavior and I need to enforce these expectations. Therefore, expectations for students on social media should match up with that we consider to be appropriate behavior, they need to be consistent with our own actions and they need to be enforced.

Research we’ve done shows that young people are experimenting with identities while they’re online. They’re exploring who they are and how they fit into the world. These spaces serve a really important function. Previously this was done in spaces other than online. People are very purposely creating certain personas and the challenge becomes how to put online personalities into context of the real world.

Some fundamental moral values any community needs to function well are the respect for others and the recognition of the dignity of every human being, including oneself! What these values might look like more specifically in social media could vary, but for starters we probably would agree that degrading others (and ourselves) with words or pictures is not appropriate, nor is it ok to disrespect someone’s wishes for privacy or to expose them to potential harm.

Q: How should institutions interact with students on social media?

A: The interaction on social media — as in any other social context — should align with the professional role and responsibilities the institution has. As a whole, an institution probably does not have interactions that go beyond presenting a page with information and student being able to follow the institution’s updates. It becomes much more complicated, however, when individual faculty interact or students interact with each other. It is useful to remember that Facebook has its origins as a way for students at Harvard to more easily connect with each other. But what should those more direct and personal interactions look like? Again, it goes back to the roles and responsibilities of the institution and its members. First, faculty: in their role as educators, faculty need to maintain their professional role and be cognizant of the power imbalance between themselves and the students. Relationships between faculty and students rarely are untouched by that power imbalance. Second, student to student: the institutions needs to support an environment that is conducive to fulfilling its role. Situations where some students feel unsafe or disrespected are not conducive to learning. Therefore, institutions need to think hard about the rules of the road that should govern the interactions that student have when they are in the institution’s care.

By Tom Lancaster